Ford Probes Buyers’ Psyche

On 8th of December, two curtained-off rooms at the Exhibit Hall B-1, Georgia World Congress Center were reserved by the automaker for six people – one man and five women. Among the group, five are single and only one is married. They are employed in real estate, computers and insurance companies. These participants drive two Chevrolets, two Hondas, a Kia and a Hyundai.

The participants sat down at an L-shaped table equipped with six microphones. In the other room, Ford employees put on headphones, booted up computers and concentrated on the huge television mounted on the wall.

At four in the afternoon, Orlando da Silva of California-based 7th Sense Research announced to the participants from Atlanta how they would spend the next two hours. “We are tremendously interested,” da Silva said, “in how you feel about your car.”

Focus groups have been around for several decades now. It has become an integral part of Ford’s planning process to come up with fascinating new cars. The automaker wanted to dig deeper and probe further into the minds of the consumers about the vehicles that customers want. Ford wanted to point out their likes and dislikes so as to apply the information in their forthcoming lineups.

According to the automaker, focus group’s opinions could be a factor in whether Ford commits huge investment dollars to a new product line. “We bring the program team here so they can see and be immersed in the customer,” said John Williamson, director of Ford’s North American “consumer insights” unit.

The six participants from Atlanta were chosen as samples to represent a hypothetical target market for a potential product line. The questions thrown by da Silva revolved on the size, design and kind of style that would attract the participants as Ford’s potential buyers.

“I’d like a timeless design,” said Barbara Mazzola who is a 31-year-old corporate trainer. “I want something with more room, just a little more space,” said Tonia Pettitt, 36, who manages an insurance company. “I like being able to say I got what I paid for, that I made a good business decision,” said commercial Realtor Teresa Johnson, 36.

While the participants are discussing, Ford employees are observing them closely on the television. No one from the participants knew Ford was behind the study. At one point, da Silva showed the participant sketches of two Ford concept vehicles under study.

“I don’t like the back end,” Pettitt said. Johnson criticized the “squareness” of the design, and Greg Frasier, a 22-year-old Georgia Tech student, described its potential owner as a “nerd.” The second sketch proved more appealing. Participants called the car sleek and fast, and compared it to automobiles more costly than their own.

Da Silva also inquired on the emotions of the participants in regards to their own cars – how they used them and why they chose one brand over another. “My car is like my little world,” said Hilary Wallace, 29. “For some reason, I always wanted to get a Honda.” The participants aspire to own vehicles which have been manufactured by Honda, Volvo and Volkswagen and other pricey vehicles.

At the end of the session, the Ford team picked Wallace for a 45-minute “home visit” the next evening. “It’s really about depth of understanding,” said Kolin Watts, a 7th Sense researcher. “It’s all about them.”

As the competition gets tougher and tougher, every automaker is expected to venture on exceptional activities to win over customers. For the Ford Motor Corp., the most viable strategy is to probe the buyer’s psyche. It is never as easy as integrating into the car cutting edge auto parts like EBC rotors – it is more than that.